“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes,” Mark Twain is said to have warned. In this era of social media, let’s make that all the way round the world while the truth is still looking for its socks.
Every day, including in the present Brexit chaos, we witness a phenomenon that subverts the truth yet remains nameless. Since naming things can sometimes help, I suggest we call the phenomenon a “thought incinerator”. The phrase may sound a bit Orwellian but then sometimes it feels like we are living in his 1984. Let me offer a definition and then give you an example. My definition of a thought incinerator is a phrase that public figures use to dismiss – out of hand and without any need for reflection – ideas they don’t like. The most obvious example I can give you is the phrase “fake news”.
The reality of fake news, that is the deliberate dissemination of falsehood to manipulate public opinion, is of course one of the greatest threats to democracy. However, President Trump has hijacked the phrase to give it an entirely different meaning. When he proclaims something to be fake news, it doesn’t matter in the slightest to him whether the information he refers to is true or false. In fact the more true it is the more likely he is to call it fake. He has even been known to label his own statements fake news if they become inconvenient for him. For Trump the phrase fake news is simply a convenient verbal rubbish bin for arguments he wants to dismiss. In short, fake news is the perfect thought incinerator.
There are many other ways of attacking the truth. Some are brutal, such as the killing or intimidation of journalists. Then there are personalised attacks and there is barefaced lying. A thought incinerator is more subtle. It is a simple phrase that serves as a rubbish bin for uncomfortable ideas. No further action or arguments are required in response to rational argument. Just pop it on the truth dump.
There is no need to understand the system. Just take everything the EU does and chuck it in a thought incinerator.
Some of the most egregious thought incinerators have played a significant part in driving Brexit forward. The concept of “the elite”, for example, has been imported into the Brexit debate as a handy phrase to dismiss the arguments of remainers. It avoids the need to come up with competing arguments or even to address the issues raised. It doesn’t matter that, when used at European level, the term elite usually refers primarily to the 27 democratically elected governments; or that, when used at domestic level in Britain, it embraces huge numbers of ordinary people as well as parliament and the courts. Criticism of elites coming from mouths that started out with silver spoons in them is beyond parody.
Project Fear was a particularly wonderful invention. Hats off to the leave campaign for dreaming it up. Remainers had profound concerns and excellent arguments. The fears were real; a few of the arguments may have been exaggerated. However, the Brexiteers had no need to engage with the damage that leaving the EU would do to the UK. The phrase Project Fear was the perfect incinerator for all the best political judgment and economic advice. Why listen to the most respected British organisations or experts when a simple verbal rubbish dump was to hand?
Many other phrases have been invented into which the Brexit facts can conveniently be disappeared. For example, the term “Brussels bureaucrats”, a thought incinerator that has been around for a long time, helped to bring the UK to this pretty pass. There are, of course, bureaucrats in Brussels, albeit on a more modest scale than at national level. But the term has consistently been deployed to obfuscate reality. It doesn’t matter that most European decisions are taken by democratically elected governments and a directly elected parliament. Or that the UK has been particularly successful in shaping those decisions. There is no need for analysis. No need to understand the system. Just take everything the EU does and chuck it in the most convenient thought incinerator available.
During the recent febrile weeks in London, Brussels bureaucracy has been superseded by “Brussels bullying” and “Brussels blackmail”, two fictional creations invented with a view to dismissing the reasonable compromise negotiated by Theresa May.
When Macbeth asks the weird sisters what they are doing, one of them replies “a deed without a name”. Their macabre activity is all the more threatening because it has no name. As Trump and Nigel Farage stir their populist cauldrons, as they mix truth and our children’s futures in with their newts and frogs, let us at least give what they are up to a name.
• Bobby McDonagh was Ireland’s ambassador to the UK from 2009 to 2013